Sustainable use of wetlands

Nari, Normal

The National – Tuesday, February 15, 2011

WETLANDS are all about water; the continuous supply of water and its natural resources. It is an area where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or seasonally.
Wetlands eco-systems are found in a wide range of environments from coastal deltas, oxbow lakes, mountain lakes to high altitude inland swamps.
Wetlands eco-systems are among the world’s most productive systems. They are essential for the supply of fresh water, maintenance and use of biodiversity, mitigation of the effects of climate change, natural water cycle and sustenance of livelihoods of local communities that depend on them.
Wetlands include coral reefs, coastal eco-systems, peat lands, swamps, lakes and rivers.
There are many benefits that we all derive from these wetlands. Simple things that we do everyday involve water.
Recent studies suggest that wetlands occupy in excess of 12.8 million km2 globally; although this may be an underestimate due to variations in the definitions used when identifying different types of wetlands.
In PNG, wetlands provide tremendous economic and conservation benefits through marine and fresh water food resources, flood control, maintenance of shoreline stabilisation, estuarine systems for coastal fisheries, water quality, provide recreational opportunities and natural habitats for some important food crop resources like sago, mangroves and water lilies.
The global community recognised the significance of wetlands and signed the International Convention on Wetlands of International Importance on Feb 2, 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar.
PNG signed up to the convention in 1993. The Ramsar convention had been observed as the World Wetlands Day on Feb 2 every year since since 1997.
The Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) is the custodian of our vast wetlands. It is tasked with their conservation and sustainable use.
People have been associated with wetlands from prehistory to the present day. Wetlands have been among the most attractive areas in the landscape, satisfying a variety of needs for hunting and gathering, spirituality, water resources and agriculture.
Wetlands and agriculture are closely linked together and both have greatly influenced humankind. Available evidence suggests that human settlements started in and around the wetlands. Long before humans learned to grow food, they depended, at least partly, on wetlands for their sustenance.
Agriculture is said to have its beginning in the wetlands and grew at the expense of wetlands (and forests).
Wetlands have been, and will remain, important agricultural resources for people in many parts of the world, including PNG.
The most common form of agriculture in wetlands is paddy rice cultivation. Evidence of rice culture dates back to the earliest age of humans and domestication of rice started in shallow swamps. With the growing demand for food, seasonal marshes were modified into paddy fields as man-managed wetlands.
While there are no evidence to suggest the exploitation of wetlands for agriculture in PNG, various types of foods are sourced from it. Sago, for example, is a common wetland plant and a stable food crop to many communities in the Sepiks, Gulf, Western, Madang and Manus.
With increase demand for food, together with issues of climate change, people will turn to cultivating wetlands. With such situation and other resource developments like mining, the ecosystem of wetlands is threatened.
DEC is already concerned that some wetlands have been lost through impacts of mining and urban expansions.
The department is already developing its capacity to promote research and education on the wise use of wetlands in PNG.
On the occasion of World Wetlands Day early this month, DEC called on all citizens to value the importance of wetlands preservation, its uses and its significance to our livelihood.
Awareness on its importance is required in line with the technical plan of the Ramsar convention to conserve and sustain wetlands. They should not be considered as wasteland, rather their importance to the local communities that depend on them should be considered before any development.
In view of the objectives of DEC, mechanisms should be in place to promote the synergies between agriculture, wetlands and water resources management. This can be achieved by developing and implementing guidelines to jointly manage agriculture and wetland eco-systems for food production in a sustainable manner.
Food security is a universal goal and it is linked with sustainable level of food production. The limits to food production are dictated both by the availability of land and water resources and our capacity to increase the productivity of these resources without depleting or degrading them.
The potential contribution of wetlands resources to food security is vast and varied. Mobilising this potential depends largely on our ability to understand the many interactions which ultimately determine the functions of a wetland and its eco-system.
Development and use of appropriate technologies could lead to effective utilisation of these resources sustainably to meet our needs. To utilise their potential, there is a need to understand its complex yet fragile ecosystem.
It is believed that agriculture has grown at the expense of natural wetlands. The wetland eco-systems are being threatened today due to various human interventions.  Therefore, conservation of wetlands requires an integrated, balanced and coordinated approach to the management of water resources whereby the impacts of agriculture on wetlands are minimised without compromising agricultural production.
Appropriate policies need to be developed to strike a balance between agriculture and wetland conservation.
With these in place, agriculture should be a partner in wetland protection.